Lori Porter

The U.S. is facing a certified nurse aide shortage of about 200,000, with the situation made more dire by a surging number of unvaccinated aides being forced to quarantine with cases of a new COVID-19 variant.

That was the warning Monday afternoon from Lori Porter, founder and CEO of the National Association of Health Care Assistants and a guest on a LeadingAge COVID-19 webinar.

Bemoaning the twin crises won’t resolve them. But neither will throwing just money at potential employees, Porter said, adding that Medicaid pressures continue to make routine higher pay and better benefits elusive for many.

“Pay is one of the scariest things,” she said. “I’ve seen facilities giving up to $20 and hour … I’m not certain how you make that happen in today’s world.”

A survey published by the American Health Care Association last week revealed 94% of long-term care facilities are struggling to hire staff. Porter suggested providers need to look at their individual recruitment efforts to address oversights and messaging, but she also suggested a federal recruitment campaign could be part of the solution.

“People want to be part of a team,” Porter said. “We want to blame the millennials because they don’t want to work. But I would hire millennials all day long because they don’t want to make a job. They want to make a difference.”

Some sociologists and economists have taken to calling the current labor challenge ‘The Great Resignation.’ Porter noted that it’s important to consider the cultural shift spurred by COVID-19 and seize on the industry’s intangible benefits to shift momentum.

“Pay and benefits (are) things we’re very weak on as a profession,” she said. “But the second thing we have to sell are emotional benefits, and we’re very high on emotional benefits if care centers and employers will learn how to articulate it in a way that resonates with ‘I want to be part of something that makes a difference.’”

Of course, millennials are also among the most unlikely to want a COVID-19 vaccine, another issue that continues to plague providers. Porter told LeadingAge members that vaccine coverage among her membership remains her top concern. She has worked to counter hesitancy with information from AMDA, rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and appealing with direct messages about the responsibility to residents.

But Porter said many of the workers her organization represents are still reluctant, at least until the vaccines receive full FDA approval.

“Many of their arguments are becoming weakened. More vaccines have been taken and no one has grown a third arm yet,” said Porter, who noted the rate of unvaccinated people in her area of Missouri recently led two major hospitals there to reopen their COVID units. “Now is the time to push harder than ever.”